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Unearthing history: former principal collects artifacts from old Central High School

Preservation project highlights graduates famous and obscure

Grand Rapids – They call it the dungeon — a cramped, musty storage room in the bowels of Innovation Central High School. Crammed against a moldy brick wall are four metal file cabinets stacked with mildewed boxes. It seems an unlikely treasure trove of history, but inside those cabinets are the records of every Central High School student from 1892 to 1939 – including a former first lady.

Mark Frost, the school’s recently retired principal, went into those cabinets to dig out the record from grades 7 through 12 of Elizabeth Bloomer, a 1936 graduate, after a Central alumnus called him and pleaded, “Don’t throw Betty Ford away!” 

Frost has meticulously preserved the records and yearbook of Ford – who served with distinction alongside President Gerald R. Ford – along with many other precious artifacts of the historic high school, now called Innovation Central. Before taking leave of Central, Frost spent weeks this summer locating, organizing and preserving historical materials scattered through the stately old school on Heritage Hill. 

“It was bugging me,” said Frost, a former history teacher. “There’s some things you can’t leave in disarray here.” 

Instead, he left an array of Central yearbooks called Helios – the Greek sun god – dating from 1892 and neatly stacked on shelves behind the library, covering every year except 1999 and 2008 (the latter was published on CD). Also stored there are elegant monthly Helios booklets of student artwork, writings and activities.  

Frost also framed elaborately decorated diplomas and antique photos, and lovingly displayed artifacts such as a 1953 silver tea set donated by the school’s Classical Club. Culled from nooks and crannies of the 1910-built school over Frost’s nine years there, the historical items tell of Central’s rich history during this 150th anniversary year of Grand Rapids Public Schools. 

Rich Legacy of Alumni 

Some of the materials have since been taken into the City of Grand Rapids Archives and Records Center, including digitized Central yearbooks from 1895 and 1944. Frost has volunteered to help the archive scan in other yearbooks and school records. 

For him, collecting and organizing pieces of Central’s history has been a true labor of love as well as scholarly interest.

“I just like history,” said Frost, who taught the subject at City High Middle School, while showing a reporter around the Central “museum.” “Every time I give a tour of this place, I feel like I’m a docent.” 

Central’s lifeblood, of course, has been the thousands of students who have walked its halls dating back to earlier buildings in the mid-19th century, and the teachers who schooled them. Among the latter were Mary Powers, Ralph Conger and Charles Newcomer – all Central grads in whose honor three seniors each year receive $100 decades later.  Frost compiled brief bios of them.

Some of the school’s many noteworthy alumni are honored with bronze plaques in its front hallway, outside the auditorium named after Betty Ford (see box). Among the most famous alums was Roger B. Chaffee, an astronaut who died in 1967 in a fire during a pre-launch simulation of the Apollo 1 flight. Scholarships in his name have been awarded to Kent ISD graduates ever since.

But Frost also preserved mementos of less well-known grads. There is a lovely senior year booklet of one Margaret Phillips, Class of 1916, and the framed 1909 diploma of Helen Cook, donated by her family. 

A photo display of Roger B. Chaffee, the late Apollo astronaut and one of Central’s most famous alumni

The Most Famous Grad 

Of course, most luminous of the alums is Ford, shown in her 1936 yearbook as active in vaudeville, “sock and buskin” (theater), French club and the yearbook ad staff. An aspiring dancer who later performed under the legendary Martha Graham, her motto is given as “Come trip it lightly as you go on the light fantastic toe.” 

Apparently her passion for dance was not matched by her studies, as her academic record is not sterling, with high marks in math and history but mediocre grades in English and French. Frost frames her story in a positive way to students, telling them that over time and with hard work, “You can rise to the top.” 

One person who’s pleased with the historical work Frost has done is David Thompson, the 1952 graduate who urged him not to discard any materials about Betty Ford. A former executive director of the Grand Rapids Education Association, he was friends with President Ford as well as with Chaffee, and helped fund a downtown statue of the late astronaut.

“I’m impressed, as are my classmates,” Thompson said of Frost’s efforts to help preserve Central’s storied history. “We got an absolutely first-class education there.”

Some of Central High School’s most noteworthy graduates are honored with plaques in the front hallway. They include: 
• Civic activist Dorothy Leonard Judd, 1915 
• Grocery magnate L.V. Eberhard, 1922
• Judge Stuart Hoffius, Class of 1931
• Philanthropist Edith Blodgett, 1934
• Judge Douglas Hillman, 1940
• Actress Elizabeth Wilson, 1940
• Old Kent Bank President Richard Gillette, 1941
• Children’s services advocate Henry Saverson, 1949 
• Detroit Lions football star Terry Barr, 1953
• Pastor and state representative Robert Dean, 1972
• City Police Chief Kevin Belk, 1977

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers series and issues stories for all districts. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio

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